The Complexities of Being Black, British, and Vegan

It can be hard to reconcile the fact that eating meat is such a big part of my culture—and to find my place in a traditionally white movement.

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22 March 2018, 1:42pm

“Wedaeli’s going vegetarian!” my brother announced, shooting me a smirk. I glared back, sending silent threats with my eyes and desperately trying to dredge up any dirt I had on him. We were queuing for the Winter Wonderland Christmas market in London’s Hyde Park, and our parents were standing right behind us. They somehow missed my brother’s grand declaration, but I decided that now was a good time to come clean anyway. ‘Twas the season to be jolly, after all.

Why did I need perfect timing to tell my parents I was veggie? Because meat plays a huge role in my family's diet and shared culture, whether that’s Mum’s mishkaki, fried tilapia, and greens, or a bacon-laden fry-up. The same goes for many Black British families.

“My mum’s Jamaican, my dad’s Guyanese,” says Ashley, founder of the Black Vegans UK Facebook group. “I grew up on rice and peas and chicken, bashment on a Sunday, reggae on a Sunday. There’s that sort of general living.”

Tomi Makanjuola, blogger at the Vegan Nigerian, also draws a connection between black cultures and meat-eating. She tells me: “There’s a lot of connotations in terms of how we cook our food and the pride we take in our cuisine. And if it’s very meat-centric then taking the extra step to switch things up and eliminate meat completely can feel like a bit of a stretch.”

Caribbean-style vegan soup made by blogger and vegan food stall owner, London Afro Vegan. Photo courtesy London Afro Vegan.

As it happens, my parents were incredibly supportive of my decision to go veggie. When I return to my family home, I’m often gifted with a spread of soya and tofu products. Makanjuola and Ashley also had positive responses from black family and friends when they cut out meat.

“Their main concern was, ‘What are you going to eat now?’ and ‘Does it taste as good as meat dishes?’”, Makanjuola recalls, but adds that any scepticism was matched with a side of good-natured piss-taking. Ashley’s parents were shocked, but supportive. He has even inspired them to reduce their meat intake.

Despite having my family’s support, I still face challenges as a Black British non-meat eater. For instance, I struggle to be vegetarian and reconcile the fact that the farming, killing, and eating of animals is such a big part of my culture.

I’m still trying to figure out how to synthesise both parts of me, but Nana Oforiwaa* is miles ahead. Oforiwaa, who identifies as Afrikan, runs non-profit organisation Afrika Yeei. She holds a vegan food stall to fundraise for the organisation. The stall is centered on African cuisines, but also has influences from Britain, Malaysia, Persia, India, and beyond. To her, it’s unrealistic to believe that the majority of Africans will drop meat, but she’s doing what she can “to introduce them slowly to replace meat with nice-tasting vegetables, pulses, legumes.”

Tomi Makanjuola (centre) at a Vegan Nigerian Christmas dinner event. Photo courtesy Alex Shaw/Vegan Nigerian.

Makanjuola is also trying to introduce a plant-based diet to those of her heritage. She started the Vegan Nigerian blog in 2013, a couple of months after she went vegan. Since then, she has started vlogging and running pop-up events. One of her main aims is show Nigerians that a vegan lifestyle is possible.

“You can still enjoy the same traditional contemporary Nigerian dishes, or fusion dishes, without having to compromise on taste,” she states.

Makanjuola and I agree on another challenge that comes with being Black, British, and meat-free: neither of us identify with the popular image of the vegetarian/vegan.

“As you know, it’s traditionally seen as a white movement,” Makanjuola explains. Despite this, she believes that there is diversity in the meat-free community, and reports a roughly even split of black and white attendees at her events.

There are also many Black British vegans in the public eye, including actress and screenwriter Michaela Coel and grime star JME (“But I roll with couple pescetarians/Vegans and vegetarians/An' a few Rastafarians/Man don't wanna see no dead meat on their plate like some barbarians.”), as well as a number of successful Black British meat-free bloggers. London Afro Vegan has 11,734 YouTube subscribers, Kirly-Sue guests on BBC radio, and Sistahintheraw is speaking at the UK’s biggest vegan event, Vegfest.

And yet Amazon’s top 20 best-selling vegetarian and vegan cookbook list features no black writers. Book publishing isn’t the only industry with a whitewashing issue—have a browse through the profiles in UK magazine Vegetarian Living, or simply search “vegetarian people” in Google Images. When black people are portrayed in the mainstream vegetarian/vegan community, they tend to be African American.

“American black vegans—there’s a different sort of vibe being that they’re overseas," says Ashley. "They have a different sort of culture.”

While there are undoubtedly cultural differences between the two groups, I believe that black vegans and vegetarians both sides of the pond share some challenges. We both confront institutional racism, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and microaggressions on a daily basis. Despite this awareness, a glaring binary has emerged in the online vegan/vegetarian community. The Veganoso Twitter account (67,800 followers) once posted a meme comparing a black man being hung from a tree in 1815 with a pig being hung from a tree in 2015. Now-suspended Twitter account Vegan Revolution tweeted “black lives matter...more than chickens or cows lives...apparently” in 2015. According to their logic, you either care about human rights, or you care about animal rights. Apparently, its difficult to comprehend that a) racism is real and contemporary b) its possible to care about both black welfare and animal rights, which many black vegans do, by default.

Take Oforiwaa, for instance. Her organisation, Afrika Yeei, supports African women with health and social problems. “I am doing fundraising to provide healthy, valuable meals,” she tells me. Along with food, Africa Yeei provides African women with the means to buy other products that may help them, such as herbal medicines, complementary therapies, and wigs for those that have lost hair due to health issues.

Despite these challenges, Oforiwaa and many other proud, Black British vegans/vegetarians are pushing the movement forward. We also musn’t forget that some of us descend from cultures with vegan values.

“There are a few Rastafarians in my family,” Ashley says. “A lot of them are actually vegetarian and you do get a few that are vegan, but they call it ital.”

Likewise, the Nation of Islam promotes vegetarianism, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians traditionally go vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays. I couldn’t find statistics on black vegetarians in Britain, but the bustling conversation in the Black Vegan UK Facebook group (which includes a Bodak Yellow vegan parody) and turnout at Makanjuola’s events suggest that we are an active and growing number. Ashley also mentioned that he is raising his kids as vegan, which makes me wonder whether they’ll face the same issues that I do now.

I can only hope for better representation in the future, less ignorance online, and—of course—more vegan Cardi B memes.

*Name changed by request.